An Excerpt From Dark Maiden by Norma Lehr
[ Information on Dark Maiden ]
Sheila Miller paused on the steps of the Stanley-Waters Psychiatric Institute of
San Francisco and tightened her grip on a canvas bag.
A blue canvas bag filled with Timmy's things.
Her dead baby's things.
Treasures she would keep forever.
She hunched her shoulders and fiddled with the button on her tan tweed jacket
while she squinted up at the dismal mass of clouds gathered overhead.
Her husband eyed the canvas bag with concern as he turned up the collar of his
raincoat and dug in his pocket for the car keys. Grasping Sheila's elbow, he
steered her down the steps to the car parked at the curb. After rearranging
garment bags and two suitcases to make room for the one bag she carried, he
turned and motioned for her to get in.
Sheila breathed in the sea air that brushed against her face. With mixed
feelings of relief and apprehension, she left the tall building behind as she
silently slid into the front seat.
"It will all be downhill now," Karl said. He smiled stiffly and turned the key
in the ignition. "You've gone through the worst of it. Doctor Bernardis assured
me you'll be fine." He patted her knee paternally as he scanned her face. "We'll
be in the sun in a couple of hours and you can lounge around the pool."
His fingers felt like ice as he lightly pinched and wiggled the skin at the
corner of her mouth. "Before you know it, the color will be back in your
The color in her cheeks? What about the color in her life? The sun would be
fine. She needed that to feel alive again. But after the loss of her son what
she really needed was a golden inner light to pour over her weeping heart and
Karl pulled the car away from the curb.
Sheila rolled down her window. She stared up at the corner room of Third Floor
East where they had stuck her two months ago after she had cried out for someone
to help her find the demon who had taken her baby. Her Timmy.
Most of those days she had helplessly sat in a straight back chair next to the
window and compulsively counted the slats of the mini-blinds, sometimes pausing
to gaze beyond them to the world outside.
She recalled how the rhythmic pounding in her head had worsened as she watched
pedestrians scurrying along on the sidewalks, and let her eyes follow the
vehicles on the black shiny streets below. Each person eager to arrive at his or
her destination while she sat alone in simulated calm. Alone and tranquilized
because everyone thought she was crazy.
Then one afternoon Karl had sat across from her during visiting hours and told
her of his decision to accept a business transfer. His firm had recently opened
a branch office in Auburn, a town three hours east of San Francisco in the
foothills of the Sierras.
"You know where that is, don't you, Sheila?" he had asked patiently. "We pass it
on our way to Tahoe."
Of course she knew Auburn. She was grieving, not senile!
"Your position at the hospital has been taken care of," he continued, drumming
his fingers on his knee. "Hilary spoke to your Director of Nurses." He wrinkled
his brow. "What's her name? Jonson?"
Sheila nodded slowly. "Yes, Jonson. Hilary spoke to her?"
"Of course," he continued. "Everyone at Bay Hospital understands why you're
leaving and they all send their best." He stood and adjusted his tie. "Quite a
gal, that Hilary. She's been a big help through all of this." He gave Sheila a
pointed look. "I hope you appreciate what a good friend she's been."
Hilary's face formed in Sheila's mind. For a moment she could almost feel
Hilary's hand on her shoulder two months earlier as they stood beside Timmy's
small grave site. When the memorial service had ended, Sheila stumbled and
Hilary steadied her as they left the tiny coffin balanced on the chrome frame.
"I'm going home with you," Hilary had whispered through Sheila's limp black
veil. "For a while anyway. Until you're stronger."
And so she had. Hilary moved into their condo that same afternoon. But Sheila
really hadn't wanted her there. She wanted to be left alone to sit in the rocker
and hold the crocheted shawl her mother-in-law, Ella June, had made for her
baby. Her Timmy who would never grow up, never crawl or say Mama--never take his
first step or start school--never.
Timmy's baby book, hidden from her by Karl or Hilary, had been closed on the
records of his brief life with a final slam.
Karl's voice suddenly crashed through her thoughts. "It's great that your aunt
found us this place, I haven't had time to go to Auburn myself and look around."
He switched on the wipers. The blades scraped at rain drops splattered across
the windshield. "Iris has been living in the cottage next to the main house for
over a year. She says the house is built on one acre and it's large and
comfortable. The owners won't be back from Europe for two years." He raised an
eyebrow. "We're set."
He shot her a sidelong glance. "Sierra Hospital is in the foothills. When you're
stronger you can apply for a job. That hick town," he snickered, "would pay top
salary for a big city nurse like you."
She squinted and used her palm to cover her ear. The tone of his voice banged
against her eardrums like a racquet ball. She knew Karl didn't want to leave the
Peninsula. He'd always hated the country. His resentment had shown clearly in
his eyes at Stanley-Waters when Dr. Bernardis had explained to them both about
the advisability of putting distance between her and the house and city where
the trauma had occurred.
Crib Death. SIDS. Printed on her mind, and on her little one's death certificate
in strong black letters. That's what they all believed.
The blood thrummed in her head. No!
No crib death. Timmy had not died of sudden infant death syndrome. He'd been
"In a couple of years," the psychiatrist had gone on, "or maybe less, you may
feel comfortable returning to this area." His kind eyes had settled on her for a
long moment before he stood and opened his office door. "Please take your time
to think about what I've said, Sheila. We can discuss it later."
The move had been decided without her. Karl and the ever-helpful Hilary and made
all the arrangements, even contacting her aunt about housing.
Three months before her discharge, she had been led to Dr. Bernardis's office by
a nondescript nurse who gently pulled her along the long dark halls; he had done
most of the talking while she sat silent, wrapped in a swaddling blanket of fear
"You're not the first mother to lose contact with reality after a crib death,"
he had tried to assure her. "This happens frequently. What you're feeling now is
normal. When parents lose a child they suffer deeply." He paused and observed
her. "Sheila, you are not responsible for what happened to your baby, but to
feel as if you are . . . to feel guilty . . . is a normal reaction. You are not
Sheila clenched her fists and thought, I know.
"These irrational thoughts and feelings are part of the grieving process," the
doctor continued. "I'm here to listen to you, Sheila. You can express your
feelings to me without fear. I won't try to talk you out of them. Just talking
about these feelings helps resolve them."
He paused as if waiting for an response. Not receiving one, he continued.
"Because the loss of a child is such a difficult grief to bear, you've found
yourself unable to . . . resume your normal activities. This is also a normal
reaction. You need to be patient, to give yourself time, and to talk about what
you are feeling."
He hesitated and leaned forward. "I can't tell you how long it will be, Sheila,
before you have any relief from the pain. I know you may be questioning your own
sanity now . . . "
No, not me. I know I am sane.
" . . . but you are sane," he continued. "Sheila, I must be honest with you. You
will hear labels voiced by some of the other patients, perhaps even some of the
staff. These do not apply to you. You have experienced a shocking loss and are
here only to ease your recovery."
His words had bounced around his book-filled office, but they had failed to
touch her anguished soul. The night her baby died she'd screamed her story to
Karl and the police and to whoever would listen. Then some stranger, some doctor
who had been called to examine Timmy, drugged her with tranquilizers. He jabbed
her with a needle while he explained she was unduly upsetting Karl with her
bizarre story of their baby's death.
Later when she had sobbed out her story to Dr. Bernardis, trying to piece
together the horrific happenings of that night, he had tried to reason it out.
"You were looking for something or someone to blame and you found it. It's clear
to me how that happened. Now let's see if I can make it clear for you." He had
thought for a moment. "You say you had been shopping all afternoon in
This was true. During her shopping trip she'd found herself in Portals of Jade,
an Oriental art gallery on Clay Street. As she wandered through the aisles, she
was drawn to a long panel that hung on the back wall. It was not its subtle
shading of colors that had mesmerized her, but the expression of blatant lust
depicted on the Asian woman's face as she strolled through a garden. She wore an
unusual shaggy gray robe and held an incense burner in her tapered fingers. And
one of the woman's long fingers seemed to point directly at Sheila.
Later that night when Sheila had gone to check on her baby, she had seen the
same woman from the picture gallery floating over Timmy's still form.
"Obviously something about that picture had a negative effect," the doctor
continued. "That disturbing image stayed in your mind then surfaced when you
went into shock." He removed his gold-rimmed glasses and polished the lenses.
Why didn't he listen? Why didn't he stop spouting textbook jargon?
"I went into shock," she had insisted, "when that woman murdered my Timmy!
Somehow--I don't know how or why--but before I could stop her--she'd captured
his soul." Sheila sobbed. "Just like that, my baby was gone."
Sheila had remained in the office that day for what seemed like an eternity,
crying out her frustration and heartache to the doctor. Oh, he had listened, but
he had not believed.
How could she expect anyone to believe her? The story sounded like the ravings
of a lunatic--or, to be scientifically correct, a grief-stricken mother
overwhelmed by guilt. But Sheila had not been overwhelmed. She knew she was
completely rational and knew, without doubt, that what she had seen, no matter
how irrational it might have been, had been real.
Despite what the doctor had said, it wasn't a projection of guilt that had made
her see that woman. Not a way of shifting blame. Because she didn't feel guilt.
Grief, yes. Huge clouds of grief like the menacing ones gathering in the dark
skies above her.
Her grief was hers and she would have to work through it alone.
"Maybe what you saw was something unexplainable," her Aunt Iris had offered when
they finally allowed Sheila to take phone calls.
Iris could be right. Unexplainable.
"Just maybe, Sheila, what happened was supernatural. Who knows? But it might be
a good idea to just let it drop for now. At least until you get out of that
horrible place and move up here to Auburn."
She had let it drop. She'd allowed the doctor to assume she was making
"progress." She'd let them call her unbalanced or whatever it was everyone did
on the other side of her private room. Let them all think what they chose to
about my baby's death. Crib death. SIDS. No one will ever make me believe that
three months ago on that windy night in March, I did not see that demonic woman
kill my Timmy.
Now, finally, she was leaving Stanley-Waters Institute. She had let them make
all the decisions and they could continue to do so.
Her job had been taken away. Karl had seen to that. Her furniture and clothes
had all been packed by Hilary who, for some unknown reason, felt it necessary to
stay on at their condo after Sheila had been shut away in Stanley-Waters. And
now she was being whisked away to live in an area she knew nothing about.
Now as she rode through the crowded city streets sitting next to Karl, she vowed
to be silent about that night until she felt stronger. Make the best of whatever
the future held. In his curious way, Karl was trying. So would she. She closed
her eyes and folded her hands in her lap as the car wove through the early
traffic toward the Bay Bridge. For now she'd let Karl handle things his way.
The car nosed into the center lane and followed the morning traffic over the
bridge. Up ahead the fog moved in through the metal girders, swallowing up the
cars, covering them one by one like a shroud.
"Jesus, I can hardly see," Karl muttered as he leaned forward and peered out.
Red tail lights in front of him blinked through the haze, alerting him that
traffic up ahead had come to a stop. He swore and pumped the brakes.
Traffic moved along in the fast lane but he stayed in the middle. The middle
lane was slower but that's where most of Karl's life had been spent. If some
people thought him dull, he figured that was their problem. He'd rather be dull
Safe? What a goddam joke. Here he was on his way to a boring town to start a new
job--with a sick wife, he thought bitterly, who hallucinated. And what about the
baby? Had that been a safe choice in these times, to have a kid? He'd let Sheila
talk him into that one and look what happened.
Sure, he cared for the baby. He had felt something. Responsibility maybe. But in
the delivery room when the kid had pushed his way out of Sheila, Karl had felt
nothing. Nada! If he was supposed to, if that was the big test, then he'd
He scratched his chin and adjusted his dark glasses. So what? He just didn't
react to certain situations. But growing up? Ha! He had reacted plenty then,
torn between his strict father and his superstitious mother.
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
Maybe that's why he'd never been interested in having kids of his own. Didn't
want to see them go through a repeat performance of his childhood.
How could he trust himself to be a dad? Look at his old man. What kind of a role
model was he? His thoughts whirled back to those Oklahoma days. He froze as the
echo of his father's voice boomed across his mind.
"I want you to stop filling the boy's head with your pagan nonsense, Ella June."
The nonsense that had enraged his father was the chants his wife, Ella, recited
with deep concentration as she prepared herbal concoctions to treat Karl's
chronic attacks of croup.
The young child Karl would bark louder each time his dad's voice rose, making
his mother move faster. She flew around the kitchen, grabbing her mixtures, then
spreading them on Karl's chest as quickly as she could.
His mother ignored his father's rants. She kept her focus on Karl and stirred
her concoctions. Sometimes she would climb up on a wooden stool, boosting her
four-feet-eleven-inch height to gather the vapors rising from the boiling pan on
the stove. Using fans she had woven from dried reeds, she sent medicated steam
down on young Karl huddled under a sheet tent on a cot near the stove.
One-half Delaware and proud of her heritage, she undauntedly went ahead with the
treatments her grandmother had passed on to her. "Be proud of the blood that
courses through your veins, son," she would whisper to Karl through the steam.
"Never deny who you are, no matter what."
The shadow of his overpowering father made Karl feel guilty and it lingered on
even now. Though he'd outgrown the croup, he felt shame whenever he was sick. As
an adult, sickness was not an option for him. When he felt ill, he worked on,
In later years, his father had finally given up trying to change or control
Ella. Still refusing Ella's concoctions, he had died five years ago. Pneumonia.
"I could have saved him," Ella June said later. "If he'd of let me, I'd have
pulled him through."
Karl never doubted his mother's methods, but he was embarrassed by them. When
she talked about her healings, he tried to steer the conversation into different
Now as he waited for the traffic to move on, he brushed the breast pocket of his
jacket and felt his mother's most recent letter, letting them know it was time
for her annual visit. Anxious about Sheila's condition, she had written to say
she was on her way to California to help. She planned to spend time with them
before going to his sister's home in Phoenix. After that she would return to
Maybe he could dissuade her from coming right now. She might encourage Sheila to
talk about her hallucinations. That might prove to be a bad idea. When they
reached Auburn he would call his sister and ask if their mother could visit
there first. "Good idea," he said out loud.
Sheila turned in her seat, interrupted from her own deep thoughts. "What did you
Karl shook his head. "Nothing. Thinking out loud." He seldom discussed his
family or his childhood with her. There were things a man didn't tell anyone.
He peered through the fog. "Why doesn't this traffic move?" He slid over and put
his arm across the seat behind Sheila's head. "Did you remember to put your
medications in your purse?"
"Yes," she said distantly. "I have them."
"I'll stop in Oakland and buy juice. It must be about time to take them."
"I'm not taking them any more," she said without looking at him.
A flash of panic crossed his face. "You're not what?"
"I'm through taking tranquilizers."
"This isn't the time to make waves, Sheila. The doctor said. . . "
She turned to look out the side window.
"Are you listening to me?"
"I'm listening," she said quietly. "But I'm through swallowing pills."
His voice lowered. "I hope you know what you're doing, Sheila. I'm not going to
have time to play nurse." He adjusted his glasses. "You are aware that on Monday
I start my new job."
"Shut up, Karl."
The traffic began to creep forward. Karl pressed down on the accelerator. "This
move won't work unless you cooperate," he said tersely. "I'm not going to be
around much, but your aunt will be next door. And I suggest you cooperate with
her. We know what's best for you right now. And Mother," he coughed nervously,
"will be coming to visit. She can help."
Ella June. Hope flickered in Sheila's heart. His mother would believe her.
"When?" Sheila whispered.
"I . . . I'm not sure . . . exactly," Karl replied. He reached for the letter.
"Here's her letter. Are you able to read this? I mean does the medication affect
"I need coffee," Sheila said straightening. "Can we stop? I'll read the letter
Karl frowned. "I don't know about coffee, Sheila. If you're not taking your
medicine I don't think you should have caffeine."
"Karl!" She mustered all the energy she had left. "Stop it! I am a nurse, for
God's sake. I'm certainly capable of deciding what medication I need."
Karl shifted and the car moved along steadily. The hum of the motor helped her
relax. She leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes. On the dark screen
of her eyelids, the face of the Asian woman suddenly appeared. Sheila gasped as
the woman bared her teeth and let out a triumphant shriek.
"Dear God," Sheila cried, wrapping her arms tightly around her middle.
Karl angled a look in her direction.
She pulled one of the plastic containers from her purse, hastily removed the lid
and swallowed a capsule.
Certainly capable of deciding what I need.
[ Top ]
[ Information on Dark Maiden ]
Copyright © 2007, Norma Lehr. All Rights Reserved.